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July 20th, 2003

Self-Checkout Lines Stink

A number of months ago, my local large grocery store took out a few normal cashiers to add in self-checkout lanes. And in their first incarnation, they stink.

The entire idea behind them is that if you need just a couple of items, you’ll save time by not having to wait in a normal line, scanning the items yourself, and bagging them yourself, too. I’m not convinced, and apparently neither are most people: these lines tend to be totally empty, even during the busiest times.

As an added bonus, there is almost always one employee devoted to fixing problems with the machines, or problems with the way people have entered things – that seems rather inefficient.

But some change is a’comin’. Our store is bringing in a program called “Shop-n-Scan”, which is just a revision of the self-checkout… but it holds promise. You enter the store, grab a scanner, and scan all of your items while you shop. When you’re done, you scan an “I’m finished” barcode, go up to the self-checkout lane, and pay. Again, it sounds better… but all of the literature I’ve seen on this is insistent that you only use two grocery bags.

Which seems like an odd limitation.

I think it’s a step towards that old IBM commercial, where a fellow simply put items in his cart, walked through a large scanner on his way out, and was on his way. Can robot cashiers be far behind?

Posted in Consumer Commentary

FROM: abby normal
DATE: Sunday July 20, 2003 -- 1:05:17 pm
i love the fact that the self check-out lines are usually totally empty... makes it that more faster for me to use.

i think the flaw in your statement that self-checkout lines stink is that people are generally stupid when it comes to doing new things right the first time. heck even when the first machine guns were mounted onto military airplanes, they forgot to synch up the gun with the spin of the propeller and ended up shooting their own planes down by shooting off their own props.

But I digress.

People would rather spend their time in the normal check out lines rather than try and learn something new (these are the same people whose vcr's are still blinking "12:00"). The pinger writer states the self checks stinks but does not offer any information to back up this claim. As with most new things, they just take a few minutes to get to know how to use them. And people don't want to bother to learn something new.

However, don't get me started on check writers who don't bother to start writing their checks until the total is wrung up... as if the store's name, date, etc are going to change in the meantime... and those who fish through their change purses so they can pay the "97" part in their bill of $7.97 in change....

give me the self check out lanes any day.

FROM: Dave Walls [E-Mail]
DATE: Sunday July 20, 2003 -- 1:13:23 pm
Actually, I agree with Abby. After a few uses, I've gotten used to the self checkout lanes, and am getting pretty quick with them. So much so, that on the start screen, where you pick the language you want the machine to talk to you in, I have it talk to me in's always good for a few stares from those around you. :)

FROM: Paul
DATE: Sunday July 20, 2003 -- 1:14:11 pm
The pinger writer states the self checks [sic] stinks but does not offer any information to back up this claim.

What? Is this English 101? Gee whiz.

Okay, information, then: I've used them. They stink. I've also used them on more than one occasion - three times, in fact - and have been really disappointed by the experience each time. It's clear that self-checkouts, at least the ones here, aren't ready for prime time yet.

...people are generally stupid when it comes to doing new things right the first time.

Like the random person who posted an inane retort to this Ping in the entirely wrong Ping, I suppose.

FROM: jk
DATE: Sunday July 20, 2003 -- 1:28:38 pm
Guess what I just did? Yup, scanned my own groceries. My problem with the system is that my preferred grocery store requires you to keep EVERYthing that you have scanned on this tiny 1' x 2' surface, which they claim is a scale. Hello, I usually buy more than that. The self-checkout lanes would be perfect if you were permitted to bag as you go, provided you have someone with you to bag.

The lonely employee who stands at the podium (in case there is a problem) must get awfully all comes down to the fact that payroll is one of the few controllable expenses that a store has.

There are days when I love it, typically when the other lines are long, but if there's a lane open with a store employee scanning, I still prefer to go that route, especially with a large order.

One last comment: it is awkward for me to remove the items, scan them, and put them on the "scale"...I don't know if it has to do with being right- or left-handed as far as which lane you choose, but I just feel like I am in the way of anyone trying to get past me. At the Weis chain, their system is great--it's your regular conveyor belt, so you can just fling your things down to the end of the lane and bag them when you are finished. Sometimes they even have a bagger for you! But I stick to Giant where the prices are considerably less. And the self-checkout area is claustrophobic.

FROM: jk
DATE: Sunday July 20, 2003 -- 1:30:38 pm
Sorry Paul, the prices are LOWER, not less. :o)

FROM: abby normal
DATE: Sunday July 20, 2003 -- 2:16:04 pm
What? Is this English 101? Gee whiz.

no, it's called backing up your claims.

Okay, information, then: I've used them. They stink.

thanks for backing up my claim:

people are generally stupid when it comes to doing new things right the first time.

yah, i'm looking at you, paul. oh, you're probably confused as to what time it is, so I'll give you a hint and let you know it's really not 12:00 right now...

FROM: Paul
DATE: Sunday July 20, 2003 -- 4:35:09 pm

If I wanted this type of abuse, I'd post on MetaFilter.

That said, abby, my claims were completely backed up in the original Ping - and I provided even more information in my reply. The sentence after the one you quoted, conveniently, mentioned that I've used the self-checkouts on more than one occasion. Thus, your claim is faulty unless you now change it to support the first three times one uses or does something.

Also, I reserve the right to not back up my own claims on my own website. After all, this isn't English 101 - we're hard at work studying toilets, poop, and Oreos here (in reverse order.) I appreciate your not leaving an email address, as well (in case I really wanted to discuss things seriously with you), and testing out HTML tags in another Ping. Good show!

Now, then, be off.

FROM: jk
DATE: Sunday July 20, 2003 -- 7:42:49 pm
You can make a better impression if you just get those darn subjects and verbs to agree!!!

FROM: Rob [E-Mail]
DATE: Sunday July 20, 2003 -- 8:02:19 pm
Hrmm. I was reluctant to try these things, but I tried one out a while back and had a good experience. No line and I only had a couple things to get, so I tried it out at my local Giant. They had a conveyory belt, a nice big easy to read screen, and a decent place to sign for credit card usage. Most stuff scanned fine, but then I got something that was a bit round (or maybe the packaging was ruffled or something) and it didn't scan right, so I had to enter the code. But it was pretty cool and kinda fun. I did it again when I went back. Now I can't stop. Help!

FROM: Ryan
DATE: Sunday July 20, 2003 -- 9:36:44 pm
The one time that I used it was in a Giant in Pennsylvania... I couldn't figure out why it wouldn't accept my Giant bonus card, though... the self-check-aisle-helper-lady informed me that the Pennsylvania Giant and the Virginia Giant chains, while connected are separate. That made pretty much no sense to me, but at least I found out I wasn't doing anything wrong.

That said, I also found the self-check aisle to be less-than-convenient. As far as I'm concerned, if they're going to eliminate someone's job, they better make it for something that really speeds things along. I much prefer Paul's idea of scan-as-you-go shopping (perhaps built into the shopping cart?).

FROM: Dave Walls [E-Mail]
DATE: Sunday July 20, 2003 -- 11:10:33 pm
Ryan --

I haven't seen the scan-as-you-go feature, but I think that would be a much bigger pain in the rear for a lot of shoppers. Take me for example. I try and do my best when it comes to shopping for reasonably healthy foods. (Except for the occasional Oreo splurge). I can't count how often I change my mind and put stuff back. Then at the end of the trip, I'd have to figure out what I scanned, what I didn't...I dunno, seems like it would be a bigger hassle than the self checkout. Maybe I'd have to see a working demo of it before I can make a judgement.

The people who, in theory, have the hardest time with this would be parents with kids. How many kids could get their hands on the scanner and start scanning cereals, candy bars, etc. without Mom knowing? Or worse yet, break the scanner?

Sounds great in concept, but I'd like to see it in action before I get worked up. I think Paul should be a beta tester. ;)

FROM: Matt
DATE: Sunday July 20, 2003 -- 11:11:25 pm
I just think crap like self checkout lines are a way to eliminate jobs and payroll. With the economy at a level of total shit, I think it's pretty dangerous for companies to eliminate any jobs period. The crappy economy seems like a plan to send us all off to war and become cannon fodder.

FROM: Ryan
DATE: Sunday July 20, 2003 -- 11:42:43 pm
Good points, Dave... hadn't really thought about the "Nah, I don't want this anymore" aspect.

FROM: Paul
DATE: Monday July 21, 2003 -- 8:16:30 am
Well, on that note Dave and Ryan, the scanners that Jewel-Osco will use have large screens... perhaps one can scroll through previously scanned items?

DATE: Monday July 21, 2003 -- 8:34:02 am
Jeez... Rarely have I seen a Ping descend into a bunfight right from the first response. Calm down... PLEASE!!

OK. Now we're sitting comfortably I'll begin.

Over in the UK a couple of the larger supermarket chains (Sainsbury & Safeway being respectively 2nd and 4th in the sector) have introduced a scan as you go system in a number of their stores. This consists of a small hand held scanner for people only making a small number of purchases, which can be simply fitted to a trolley in about half a second for larger shopping trips. It seems that we never attempted on a widespread basis the system that requires the "weigh-in" as an additional security measure.
You need to register for the service before setting out for the first time (this includes setting up a loyalty card account and using it in conjunction with your payment card, just so Big Brother can keep track of what you are up to). But after that it all seems quite easy. I have seen them perform a couple of random checks on peoples groceries at the exit, but they have done so quickly & politely.
It seems the system can work well as long as it's kept simple.
I have noticed that most of the people who do use it at my local store are twenty & thirty somethings who are probably not technophobes (no surprise there then).

Haven't got a clue how they deal with the 'changed my mind' situation. I'm inclined to agree with Dave that the biggest problem with the whole system is what happens when you insert children into the equation. I reckon FUBAR would be a common result.

You may have noticed that I've worded this all quite carefully. That's because I almost always shop in a competing store which still just uses human staff scanning at the checkout, so have never signed up for the system. I'm tempted to, just so I can speak with a bit more authority on the subject.

FROM: Chris
DATE: Monday July 21, 2003 -- 8:53:35 am
I don;t like the self-scanners. First of all, if I'm in a grocery store I'm often buying beer - which of course requires some pimple faced kid to come over and confirm that that I''m not violating any federal laws. So, I don't get the alleged speed benefits. Also, I don't like doing the extra work. Maybe if I got a discount or someething - but doing their job for them, with the only benefit being that I can maybe do it faster, is a crock.

Someday in the future everything in the store will have a RFIP tag embedded in it, and you will swipe a credit card, walk your grocery cart under some sort of scanner, and everything will be scanned and charged to your card in about 1 second. That will be cool.

FROM: Dave Walls [E-Mail]
DATE: Monday July 21, 2003 -- 10:13:06 am
The large screens for scrolling/modifying orders would definitely be a bonus, but I still pray for what Chris wrote about. Walking the cart under a scanner, and scanning everything. It's almost like the EZ-Pass system that cars use to pass through the toll gates, but for your shopping cart instead.

I still am a bit skeptical about the practicality of it all. How much time would REALLY be saved? Chris hit it right on the nose: If the only benefit of it is doing their job for them, then why bother? You want me to shop at your store? Put the Oreo's on sale more often.

FROM: jk aka Retail Guru
DATE: Monday July 21, 2003 -- 5:23:43 pm
It's allllllllllllll about payroll, trust me. That's a shame, because if we were allowed to spend MORE payroll, we would be able to offer a better shopping experience and thereby guarantee repeat business. Have you ever seen a Wal Mart with 88 check-out lanes and only 6 of them are open? That is the very reason that I will not shop at Wal Mart. (Wall Mart? he he)

FROM: towinlovinit
DATE: Monday July 21, 2003 -- 11:18:54 pm
I have used those self scanners and I do like them when I have only a few items. Even at times when I have had a lot. They are easy to use and quick once you know how to use them. Even my 10 year old boy can use them. If we have coupons, we scan them and we are through. Very easy when you get to using them all the time. It's like anything else, once you try it out and use it regulary, it's a cinch! I do agree that it does reduce the amount of employees, which is a shame. I live in one of the worse states with the highest unemployment rate. But when it comes to effectiveness, they work great. I don't have time for employees mistakes. I can kick myself when I make a mistake. And as far a baggers go, thats what kids are for, of course if you don't have any, there is always an employee who is willing to help. So really!, What is the real problem?

FROM: Kate
DATE: Wednesday July 23, 2003 -- 12:01:49 am
I don't like self-scanners because I like people. The challange of getting the checkout guy to laugh in the 30 seconds that he is scanning your item is just too much fun to pass up. If I wanted to order things without human interaction, I'd buy them online.

FROM: Ryan
DATE: Wednesday July 23, 2003 -- 9:13:27 am
Good point, Kate. I'd be totally bummed if I had to give up seeing Happy Bill at Giant because of a self-service line. Or Yertle the Turtle at Safeway (right, Corey?).

FROM: Aaron [E-Mail]
DATE: Wednesday July 23, 2003 -- 7:03:33 pm
The supermarket near my dad (QFC, iirc) installed a few of the self-checkout machines. My dad seems to like them but I found the experience to be aggravating and overly complex. The implementation at this supermarket sounds similar to the one jk used. The shopper placed his or her bags on one platform, then took out one item, scanned it, then placed it on another small platform (which appeared to be connected to a scale of some sort). If you want to purchase alcohol, the self-checkout supervisor must be called over to review the shopper's identification then enter a secret code which indicates the shopper is 21 years of age or older. My dad prefers to pay for his groceries with cash, so the conclusion of this self-checkout ritual is as equally humorous and frustrating as the rest. Coaxing the checkout machine into accepting wrinkled bills is as difficult as returning an opened DVD to Best Buy. My dad spends nearly as much time trying to iron out the bills' wrinkles on the edge of the counter as the entire shopping trip. I suppose using a credit or debit card for payment would be easier and quicker, but he likes cash. The final chapter in the saga is another Best Buy-ism adopted by QFC: the need to check the receipt against the bags' contents as the shopper exits the self-checkout area. Fantastic, another line forms at this bottleneck since there is only one store employee to supervise the six self-checkout stations.
So, the one implementation of self-checkout I've experienced is not satisfactory. I can't understand what my dad likes about it, especially since there are often manned checkout counters with no lines. I think it would be quicker and easier to use one of those.
As for me, I will avoid this particular implementation of the self-checkout concept. Perhaps in the future there will be implementations that truly make checking-out easier and/or faster. I am interested in the use of RFIDs. If that would allow nearly instantaneous recognition of all the items in your cart, followed by a quick totaling of your bill; I would be excited to try it out.

FROM: Paul
DATE: Friday August 1, 2003 -- 10:40:58 am
Today I stopped by the store to get cash for laundry quarters. And I figured, "Well, I'll give this a try."

I got in the self-checkout line behind a fellow who was finishing up his order. He spent a solid minute looking for the place to slide his debit card and enter his PIN. This I fault on the design of the thing; the card/PIN pad is very far from the screen, and difficult to locate.

But he soon finished his transaction, and it was my turn. My goal was to purchase a couple of candy bars, which would be cheaper than paying an ATM fee and also give me that sweet sweet sugar.

I stepped up, scanned my Preferred Card, and scanned my bars. I asked for $10 cash back (although I found it funny that I could have asked for $100 back on a $1.01 purchase.) I slid my card, entered my PIN, got my receipt and cash and was on my way.

So, yes, I finally had a good experience at the self-checkout lane! I think it's best when I'm trying to circumvent ATM fees (which would be about $3.50 - $4.00) and want some quick cash.

Also, the store now has the "scan items while you shop" thing in place. I didn't try it today, but might on my next trip.

FROM: Alexandra
DATE: Monday September 8, 2003 -- 10:34:48 am
This solution scan-as-you-go shopping a lot of you mentioned is available. We have such a solution in Berlin in a store. It's great. You just swipe you customer card through a magnetic stripe reader at a terminal and can take a scanner with you. There is a holder for the scanner on the cart. You go shopping and scan every item before putting it in the cart. Then you can go to another terminal. Put the scanner back in the charger and you get a printout. With this printout you go to the checkout, pay and leave the shop. It's very simple. But unfortunately the people are not honest and "forget" to scan items. So there is only one installation in Germany left. That's a pitty.

FROM: Brian
DATE: Wednesday March 31, 2004 -- 8:54:11 pm
I just wanted to say that I have gained a lot of useful information by the wide range if input this ping had generated. The reason I say this is because I currently working on a project that deals with just this, self checkout stations. I plan to do a complete redesign for my senior thesis project at the school of Design OSU. Thanks again and I will be sure to come back here to and input and to the conversations going on.

FROM: Paul
DATE: Wednesday March 31, 2004 -- 9:17:04 pm
We have a $5,000,000 charge for thesis use, right Ryan?

FROM: Bashful
DATE: Monday April 25, 2005 -- 12:58:41 am
I love the self-checkout lanes. They are a lot faster and you don't have to deal with other people (especially rude cashiers).

When I go shopping, I'm very big on privacy especially personal items that I purchase. With the self-checkout, I am able to have this privacy.

Another thing I like about the self-checkouts is that the transactions are more secure since there is no human being involved in the transaction process. This means that if you use your credit card, no humam being will be able to view your credit card numbers which reduces or eliminates the worry of fraudulant charges.

I'm also a very shy person and I'm very pathetic with human interaction especially I find Calculus and Analytic Geometry III a lot easier to master and understand than the art of social interaction and lots of times I tend to get stressed out when approching the cashier at the checkout. With the self-checkout, for me, all this stress is eliminated since it is only me and the computer.

I hope they implement a lot more self-checkout lanes in the near future at a lot more shops.

AJ December 16, 2007, 6:37 am

For one thing im a cashier at Tops freindly Markets and i hate the easyscans they take jobs away and im twice as fast as any customer can scan things and im very polite one of the nicest casiers. and the whole the privacy aspect the last guy said is untrue we se everything you scan theres camaras over the scanners and we see on the screen the product you scan the uscan is just there to make payroll less they should be removed and put the old registers back at least you can have human interaction i mean i love computers but not in a supermarket and some people like interaction with a cashier and i belive this will never change and id rather go to a regular register anyways and always will.

Paul December 16, 2007, 8:41 pm

Are you sure you’re a casier? Because that’s a small town in Italy.


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